Where is Discernment?

I grew up in the United States, but outside of Utah. My family were deeply orthodox believers in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I learned to be very trusting of all church members, especially those in leadership. I saw them through rose-colored glasses, and never encountered evidence to make me think otherwise. I was taught as a youth that a bishop had the gift of discernment and I absolutely must confess my sins or he would know I was lying. I believed that and acted accordingly.

In my patriarchal blessing more than 20 years ago I was told that I was given the ‘great spiritual gift of discernment’ and that it would help me to ‘discern the inner thoughts of others’. There have been times when I felt like that blessing was being realized in my life. A feeling that I could see into someone’s mind and heart and understand their motives. At times it gave me the promised comfort.

I moved to Utah as an adult, 7 years ago. It was a culture shock to suddenly find myself surrounded by fellow church members everywhere I went. Occasionally catching up on the news, I was disenchanted with my childish notions that Mormons are all good and trustworthy. I learned about so many instances of crime and abuse perpetuated by those I would have considered “Brother” or “Sister”, and expected more of. I used to think Mormons behaved better than the general population. Now, I doubt it. They are the same as other people. And some are worse. Some use their positions of power and influence to take advantage of the vulnerable.

This week in my home county, news broke about a current bishop (Lehi,UT, Mill Pond Ward) who was arrested in a sex-trafficking sting. He had contacted police officers posing as prostitutes and offered to ‘manage’ them. He met with them and offered to help them avoid police and get clients. He said he had experience with this (later denied). He put one of the officers’ hand over his genitals and later exposed himself. He was arrested under suspicion of exploiting a prostitute, patronizing a prostitute, sexual battery, and two counts of lewdness. He also served as a police officer in Utah until he resigned in 2012, apparently while under investigation for sexual misconduct.

This makes me sick. Behaviors like this don’t come about suddenly. This man would likely have been giving temple recommend interviews within days of his arrest. The church is taking action to replace him as Bishop, but the damage is done. Having someone who serves as Bishop of a congregation be caught in such un-bishop-like activities damages the credibility of the whole ‘calling’ process. Why would this man have been called as bishop? How I wish there was someone in leadership who would have prevented this man from being put into a position of trust! D&C 46 talks about the gifts of the spirit given to the church, one of the important gifts being that of the discerning of spirits (v. 23). The D&C student manual explains “To Church leaders the Lord gives the gift ‘to discern all those gifts lest there shall be any among you professing and yet be not of God’ (D&C 46:27).” (https://www.lds.org/study/manual/doctrine-and-covenants-student-manual-2017/chapter-18-doctrine-and-covenants-46-49?lang=eng). What ever happened to the gift of discernment in leadership? Aren’t they supposed to recognize when someone in the congregation is ‘professing’ and ‘not of God’? Keeping a predator out of the office of bishop, seems like a prime time for the gift of discernment to have been useful.

According to lds.org, discernment is “To understand or know something through the power of the Spirit. The gift of discernment is one of the gifts of the Spirit. It includes perceiving the true character of people…” (Guide to the Scriptures, “Discernment, Gift of”). In this situation, I think the true character of this bishop was displayed in the way he behaved toward the undercover officers. The very purpose of the gift of discernment was frustrated.

In the Book of Helaman, Nephi displays great spiritual gifts. When a crowd of passers-by gathers to hear his prayers of lamentation on the tower in his garden, he calls the people to repentance and he prophesies and reveals the murder of chief judge Seezoram. Then he discerns through the spirit, that the murderer was Seantum, and that blood would be found on his cloak. (Hel 7-9). Nephi’s story shows a case of God revealing to a church leader happenings that occur elsewhere (murder), as well as who was involved, and where to look for proof.

As a child, these kinds of stories led me to believe that church leaders were similarly inspired, that God would reveal such mysteries to them. Elder Bednar taught that discernment can help us “detect hidden error and evil in others,” (What is Discernment? New Era, June 2018). Who is supposed to detect the hidden evil in our fellow congregants? Who is supposed to detect the hidden evil in our bishops, stake presidents, or other church leaders? Who is going to protect vulnerable people from predators? If this gift is truly the prerogative of our leaders, why don’t we see it in action? I worried as a 12 year old that if I didn’t confess and repent of every little ‘sin’, the bishop would know, and I wouldn’t get to go participate in youth baptisms. Now I see that every day people are lying at every level in the church and getting away with it. Regularly I see in my newsfeed of people called to leadership positions in the church, while hiding heinous crimes. If we don’t know someone is wicked until the law catches up with them, it is too late. The church is littered with people professing and not of God. Discernment is dead in the church leadership.


Chiaroscuro is a play of light and shadow. Finding noisy messy lovely life in all the shades between.

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12 Responses

  1. Jan says:

    This is another reason why no child or youth should have a one-on-one worthiness interview with a bishop. In addition, all who work with children or youth should have a background check. Too much sexual abuse in the Church.

  2. Mel says:

    When I was going through my “faith crisis” I decided to do a thought experiment — what would things be like in the world if the BoM was true vs false? Discernment was one of the things. If it was true that all Bishops (for example) had discernment like in the BoM, they’d find hidden sins before calling people. If it wasn’t true, we’d see people being able to easily hide their sins from prophets on down (which is what we see).

  3. EmilyB says:

    Where is discernment, indeed. I am glad that Exponent is taking up this topic, but as the survivor of abuse by and LDS leader, I looked to the sisters here for guidance after news broke about the Sterling Van Wagenen child sex abuse scandal, because it so greatly affects our temple worship experiences, both past, present and future (and Exponent was ON the ball when temple changes were recently made that affect the sisters–many posts over many weeks–thank ou for those!).

    But now it seems like Van Wagenen has been given a pass and this blog has skipped over his abuse case without a word and gone right to the sex trafficking bishop scandal. I want to discuss all abuse cases, because awareness is crucial to both prevention and healing, but why was the Sterling Van Wagenen case never discussed on Exponent???

  4. magentamidnightblue says:

    I address the question of criminals and the gift of discernment. Studies have shown that it is nearly impossible to discern a practiced liar. Even people who think they are good at detecting lies cannot. Remember murderers Marc Hoffman, who convinced apostles, and Martin MacNeill, who had at one time been a bishop. I remember a married BYU professor who was having sex with a student during the time he received a call to be a mission president. Fired and excommunicated, he said that the church was obviously false. I prefer that we accept the gift of discernment as the Holy Spirit guides us individually, in knowing good from evil. And that we consider human behavior overall, as it always has been, and always will be.

  5. anon says:

    How is it that this man was called as a bishop after having to resign as a police officer in 2012 due to alleged sexual misconduct! Nobody in his stake knew about it? Or did they not care? I fear the latter. My goodness.

  6. DB says:

    I find it interesting that your perception of church leadership changed after you moved to Utah. Although I don’t find it particularly unique that your perception changed after moving to Utah.

  7. violadiva says:

    I think you make a great point about what we’re missing in the crack between discernment and background checks.
    Not every SP makes the best call every time. But by not having a checks and balances system, by not having background checks for those who work with children, we make their job immeasurably more difficult. I would imagine this bishop’s Stake President is asking himself the same questions, “how could I have been so wrong about bishop x?” He’s likely blaming himself, when it’s the shoddy system he’s operating in that doesn’t offer any protections.

  8. Risa says:

    I have been attending a Christian church for the last 4 years since distancing myself from the LDS church. No one is allowed to work with the children’s or student’s ministries without a background check, an interview, and 3 references.

    If we really cared about our children as we say we do in the LDS church (remember, we’re the “gold standard” in protecting against abuse), we need to implement the same changes.

  9. Patty Johnson says:

    Fingerprint church leadership, bishops, counselors, teachers. As a public school teacher I had to pass a fingerprint screening. This would at least catch anyone with a record and protect against predators who move and start over. Forgiveness should never mean putting a predator back in a position of trust where he might reoffend.

  10. Being born and raised in Utah, I have learned that LDS church membership is no indicator of their goodness, or for that matter, is their leadership calling an indication of their spiritual gifts. I wish people would stop teaching children this untruth.

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